They’re scheduled for a publicity event the next day, the two of them, and Patrick wants to die.
“I don’t do this stuff,” he says as Jonny gets him into the new suit that Patrick is kind of relieved Jonny made him buy.
“I mean, it’s not like I’m good at it, either,” Jonny says, and that’s hilariously true. It makes Patrick feel better, and he says so, which gets him Jonny slugging him on the shoulder and then wrestling him to the bed until Patrick cries out in defense of the suit.
(If it’s also just in time to keep Jonny from noticing his boner, well, no one needs to know about that.)
Patrick knows he’s lucky not to have had to do an interview right after the bonding. They wanted him to, he thinks, because he heard Jonny talking them down. But he knew they were going to want to trot him out eventually.
There’s a PR person who puts makeup on them at the rink and tries to do something with Patrick’s hair. “I guess that’s okay,” she says doubtfully, poking at the curls. Jonny smirks at him from across the room.
Patrick sticks his tongue out at him as soon as the PR lady’s back is turned. Just because his hair always looks good.
The lights are really bright when they’re on camera with the BHTV guys. Some reporter is interviewing them, and Patrick’s trying not to pass out.
“Um, yeah, it’s been really crazy,” he says, and he’s sure he sounds like an idiot. “But everyone’s been great. Especially Jonny, here.” He meets Jonny’s eyes, and then looks away before it can become one of the long stares that the guys on the team have started teasing them about.
“This must be a very different future than you were anticipating,” the interviewer says. “Did you ever think you’d end up on this path?”
It’s one of the questions they coached him on, so Patrick’s expecting it. But as soon as he starts thinking about his answer, he flashes back on being thirteen: winning games, getting points, coaches already talking about how far he might go. His parents in the stands cheering him along.
“Um, obviously it’s something you dream about,” he says. “I guess I just never thought it would come true.”
There are some questions for Jonny, then, about what it’s like to finally have a bond after a whole year of trying. They went over these answers already, too, and Patrick tunes it out a bit.
He snaps back to attention when the interviewer says, “So, Patrick, you were in a foster home until recently. Can you tell us a little about that?”
This…isn’t one of the questions they prepped them on. Patrick’s breath catches in his throat, and for a second he panics. He can’t say—well, any of the things that come to mind, and—
Jonny’s hand slides over his. Patrick grasps it right away, threading their fingers together so tightly it’ll probably cut off both of their circulations. But it works: he feels the grounding of Jonny’s presence, feels the panic ebb into something manageable.
He looks at Jonny in gratitude, at Jonny’s warm brown eyes looking back at him like they’ll never stop. “I’m just happy to have a family now,” Patrick says.
Jonny yells at the PR people as soon as the interviewer was over. “How could you let them come out with that question?” he demands. “You know that wasn’t on the list!”
“We know.” Tiny PR lady is standing unswayed before Jonny’s rage, so presumably she deals with angry hockey players a lot. “I’ve already spoken with the news organization.”
“They can’t just ask invasive questions like that,” Jonny says.
“And that’s what I’ve told them,” she says.
“You have to cut it from the tape.” Jonny smacks a fist against his thigh, turning to pace a little. “It’s not fair—”
“Jonny.” PR lady stops him with a hand on his arm. “Calm down. It was great.”
Jonny stops flailing and stares at her.
“We’re not cutting it,” she says. “Patrick’s answer was amazing. You know that’s the clip they’ll be going with now.”
Jonny looks over her shoulder, meets Patrick’s eyes. Patrick tries to tell him what he can’t quite say out loud: that he doesn’t mind them knowing how he feels about all this. How he feels about Jonny.
“All right,” Jonny says with a grimace, and Patrick grins and takes his arm to drag him out of there.
“Sorry about him,” he says to the PR lady, and Jonny grumbles at him but lets himself be dragged.
They did the filming during a break in training camp, so the other guys are there when they’re done washing off their makeup. Evidently news travels fast, because Sharpy and Burs catch Patrick in the locker room and pull him into a double bear hug.
“Are we your family, little Kaner?” Burs asks.
“I didn’t even know we were ready to adopt,” Sharpy says to Bur.
“Fuck off,” Patrick says, but he’s laughing.
“Sharpy has to be the mom,” Burs says.
“I do have the best hair,” Sharpy says, and Jonny has his arms crossed over his chest, and Patrick is smiling, and smiling, and smiling till his cheeks hurt.
Now that Patrick has a phone, he’s been talking to his sisters more often than not. They don’t have cell phones, but the Roziers are good about them using the home phone, and most nights Patrick spends at least an hour talking to them. The first night he does it in the guest room so he doesn’t bother Jonny, but he kind of hates shutting himself away from Jonny for so long, so he starts doing it while they’re both sprawled on the couch. (Jonny has a really great couch.) Jonny sometimes snorts a laugh when the conversation gets too inane, but Patrick just prods him with his toes until he shuts up. Or, more often, until he drags Patrick’s feet up into his lap and gets a firm grip on them, and that’s even better.
His sisters give him grief about the BHTV interview. “You have a family now, huh?” Erica says, grin in her voice.
“Oh, shut up, you know I didn’t mean you weren’t,” he says. He didn’t actually meant to offend them, he just meant—but she’s laughing.
“I know who you were really talking about,” she says, sing-song, and he growls at her until Jonny starts shooting him mildly disturbed looks.
Patrick hangs out in the stands at training camp for most of that weekend. By the time Monday rolls around, he’s resigned himself to going to school again, but Jonny stops him before he can get out of bed. “Q was hoping you could come into practice today,” he says.
That stops Patrick. He—well, he would love nothing more, but he definitely wasn’t expecting this. Q’s talked about getting him to play in different leagues this year, some USPHL games, some smaller regional stuff, getting him as much experience as possible. But nothing about practicing with the team. “You know I can’t play with you this year,” he says.
Jonny stretches on the mattress, and the movement against Patrick’s side is very distracting. “He wants the two of us to get used to playing together with other people,” he says. “Not just one-on-one.”
That makes sense. They’ve done a lot of one-on-one over the past week, and it’s been amazing, but it never really happens in the context of a hockey game.
Playing with the rest of the Blackhawks is a heady experience. Patrick’s in a no-contact jersey, which he’s embarrassed about, but…well, let’s just say that the other guys might have a few pounds on him. And he hasn’t been on the ice with this many people in years.
It’s disorienting at first. He’s gotten used to watching this from outside the rink, to having lots of clean, open ice to himself when he’s skating. Now there are people everywhere.
But then, the problem with the open ice was that it was boring. Here it’s anything but. Everyone’s trying to take the puck from him all the time, and he has to maneuver around the opposing team and be aware of his teammates’ positions and be in place to receive their passes and not take the puck offsides and find an opening and—
“Goal!” Sharpy shouts, and everyone’s glomming onto Patrick until he’s buried in a pile of sweaty hockey players, Jonny’s delighted laugh in his ear.
Of course, the payment for his elation is that he has to report to the principal’s office that afternoon.
He’s expecting it, because Stan pulled him aside before he left the rink and told him he’d be having a word with the school about getting Patrick onto a more flexible schedule. So Patrick’s not surprised when he gets the summons during Spanish, and he’s not surprised when he gets to the office and sees Stan there.
He is surprised to see his foster mother and his social worker in the other row of chairs.
Patrick stops dead in the doorway of the office. “What,” he says, and then the rest of his words are lost. His foster mother has Chris next to her, and he’s sporting a dark bruise around his eye. He spots Patrick and gives him a smug look.
“Patrick.” Stan’s giving him a questioning look, eyes darting over to the others and back. “Is there something going on here I don’t know about?” he asks in a low voice.
Patrick doesn’t know what to say, and before he can try for something, the door to Principal Tanner’s office opens. “Patrick?” she says. “Great. You can all come in now.”
Everything in Patrick rebels against the idea of following his foster mom and Chris into a confined space. But he does it, his feet feeling like lead. Then the door closes behind him, and his foster mom starts ranting about him.
He’s forgotten what it was like to have her voice in his ear. “—and it’s a travesty, letting this happen to poor innocent boys in the halls of your school,” she says, while Principal Tanner tries to get a word in edgewise. “It’s enough to make you question whether the school has any rules at all. I knew Patrick was capable of some horrifying behavior, but I didn’t expect—”
“Mrs. Green!” The principal finally manages to cut in. “I realize you’re upset. I’m just hoping to get some clarity on what happened—”
“He attacked me!” Chris says, and Patrick wonders if he’s the only one who can hear the gleeful tone in his voice. “He shoved me into the lockers and started punching me for no reason.”
Principal Tanner looks at Patrick. “Is that true?”
“I—” Patrick starts to say, but his foster mom starts talking over him.
“Of course it’s true,” she says. “Chris came home with bruises all over him. I’ve never seen him so upset. Frankly, I think a serious look needs to be taken at this boy and the influences in his life.”
“Right,” the principal says. “And that’s why you’ve brought Ms. Arbright here.”
The social worker clears her throat. “There do seem to be…quite serious concerns about his placement at the moment.”
Patrick goes cold. “No,” he says, and from behind him, Stan says, “Now, just a minute—”
“It’s very unusual for a minor to be moved outside of his system without consulting his case worker,” the social worker goes on. “I’m astonished it was allowed to happen.”
“I already cleared this with your office last week,” Stan says. “They said—”
“You realize they have him living with a nineteen-year-old boy?” his foster mom says, ignoring Stan. “As soon as I realized where he’d gone after he walked out on us, I knew I had to intervene. Barely any true adult supervision, and in the middle of a violent environment—”
“No,” Patrick says again, but his voice feels small.
“—well, naturally things like this will happen,” she says. “To participate in a vicious sport like hockey, he needs a stable home to come back to. Now,” she pauses and gets a long-suffering look on her face, “we’ve had our problems with him in the past, and it’s not every family who would agree to give him a second chance. But given his obvious need—”
The door bursts open, and Jonny comes rushing in.
He’s breathing hard, and his hair is sticking up, like he came straight from a shower. Patrick’s never been so happy to see him.
He moves straight to Patrick’s side and puts a hand on his shoulder. “What the he—heck is going here?” he asks.
Patrick’s foster mom gives Jonny a look that could freeze water. “And here’s his adult guardian.” She doesn’t put “adult” in air quotes, but Patrick can hear them in her voice, and he can tell his social worker does, too. “You can see why we need to reexamine this situation.”
“Mrs. Green.” Principal Tanner spreads her hands. “I’m not sure how any of this is relevant to—”
“You guys should expel him,” Chris bursts in, too loud, and everyone startles a little bit, but Mrs. Green picks up the thought smoothly.
“As my son says,” she says, “Patrick should be severely punished for his behavior. However, given the difficulties he’s faced recently, we’re prepared to waive that expectation. If,” and she pauses for emphasis, “we can be sure he’ll be moved to a proper family environment.”
She turns to look at Patrick for the first time, and there’s a look in her eyes like—like greed. Patrick feels sick.
Jonny’s hand tightens on his shoulder. “You can’t do that,” he says gruffly. “Patrick needs to stay in the place that’s best for him.”
“And I will be the one to decide where that is,” his social worker says.
“We haven’t heard from Patrick yet,” Principal Tanner cuts in. “Patrick? Do you have anything to say about this?”
Patrick looks at them: the four of them, all staring back. “I didn’t hit him in the face,” he says.
There’s a slight pause. “Excuse me?” Principal Tanner says.
Patrick feels dizzy, like maybe Jonny’s touch is the only thing holding him up. “I didn’t hit him in the face,” he says, and his voice is still faint but a little stronger this time. “He—he shoved me against a locker and went to punch me, and I ducked, and I hit him in the stomach and then kneed him in the groin.” He looks at Chris. “I never even got near his face.”
The social worker is frowning, confused. But next to Patrick, Chris’s face has gone red around the bruise, and Mrs. Green’s has gone white.
“I’m not sure I understand what you’re saying,” Principal Tanner says carefully.
“He’s lying, obviously!” Chris says. His voice has gone louder and more desperate. “He shoved me to the ground and beat me up. That’s where I got the bruise.”
“Earlier,” Principal Tanner says, “you said he shoved you against the lockers.”
Another pause. “Well—yeah, he did,” Chris says. “To the lockers, and then to the ground. And then—and then he kicked my face.”
The bruise could have come from a kick. It’s a vicious one, swelling up the skin around Chris’s eye so that he can’t open it all the way, a purple so dark it’s almost black. There are lots of ways he could have gotten it, but Patrick knows it didn’t come from him. “Or did you get it sometime later?” he asks, and he catches the tight fear on Mrs. Green’s face.
“This is ridiculous,” she spits at him. “I don’t know what you’re implying, but I don’t need to sit here and—”
“Just a minute,” Principal Tanner says. She has her hands steepled together in front of her, and she’s fixing Chris and his mom a narrow-eyed glare. “Let’s all agree that there are a lot of things that could have happened here. But,” she goes on, override Mrs. Green when she tries to interrupt, “Mrs. Green, as someone familiar with the foster system, you’re no doubt aware of the mandatory reporting rules that apply to someone in my position when someone makes a suggestion like this.”
Mrs. Green’s mouth is open, but she’s not talking.
“Fortunately, you’ve brought your own social worker with you,” Principal Tanner says. “Ms. Arbright, I expect you’ll want to look into this?”
The social worker’s mouth has turned into a thin line. “Yes, I think you’re right,” she says, standing up. “Mrs. Green, if we might…?”
“This is ridiculous,” Mrs. Green says again, but her voice has gone higher than usual. “You can’t possibly think—”
“I believe the social worker has made a request of you,” Principal Tanner says, and Mrs. Green shuts up and stands, pulling Chris up next to her. She starts talking to him in a low, hurried voice as they go out the door, and Ms. Arbright follows.
There’s a brief silence in the office after they leave. Jonny’s hand is a little less painfully tight on Patrick’s shoulder, but he’s standing closer now, close enough that Patrick can feel his body heat.
Principal Tanner breaks the silence. “Patrick,” she says. “Is there anything else you’d like to tell us?”
“I don’t know if they really hit him,” he says, and Jonny’s hand twitches against him. “I mean, they never hit me.”
“If that’s the case, there won’t be anything for Ms. Arbright to uncover,” Principal Tanner says. “On the other hand, it might make it harder for them to get another foster child placed with them.” She fixes him with a look. “Are you all right with that?”
Patrick feels something within him loosen, something he hadn’t known was tight. “Yes, ma’am,” he says, and Jonny makes a little abortive noise.
The meeting goes quickly after that. Stan has brought a bunch of papers for the principal to sign, giving Patrick permission to miss school on a regular basis for practice. “And we’d like him to travel with the team sometimes,” he says, and Patrick startles.
Principal Tanner turns the same sharp-eyed gaze on Stan that she’d turned on Mrs. Green. “I don’t want him to fall behind.”
“Believe me, we’ll be making every effort to keep him up to speed,” Stan says, and she purses her lips but nods.
There are some other details after that, but Patrick can barely pay attention. He feels shaky, the aftermath of unspent adrenaline. Jonny’s pressing up a little against Patrick’s back, and Patrick focuses on his grounding warmth. He wants to lean back and close his eyes and let the rest of the world disappear.
They leave Principal Tanner’s office with two periods still left in the school day. Patrick should probably go back to class, but no one suggests it—Stan looks stormy, like he’s going to make some angry phone calls to the foster system when he gets back to the office, and Jonny is silent until they reach his car.
They say goodbye to Stan at the car, and as soon as they get inside, Jonny reaches across the front seat and pulls Patrick into a tight, clinging hug. “That fucking woman,” he says.
“She wasn’t that bad,” Patrick says, and Jonny pulls back a little, enough so that Patrick can see his eyebrows shoot up to his hairline.
“She wasn’t that bad?” he repeats.
Patrick shrugs and looks down. “I mean, she really didn’t hit me,” he mumbles.
Jonny lets out a half-amused breath and rubs his hands up Patrick’s back. “Fuck, Patrick, not hitting you is, like, the bare minimum of being a good foster parent.”
Patrick pulls away a little, turns to face forward in his seat. He knows Jonny’s right, but he can feel a lump climbing into his throat. “It’s not that easy, having a kid in the house who’s not yours.”
“Sure,” Jonny says, but—”
“No, it’s really hard,” Patrick says. “It makes sense that—I mean, they need things, you know? Food, and clothing, and—they take up space—and it’s not crazy. To want something in return.”
Jonny looks at him for a beat. “You’re allowed to need things,” he says softly.
Is he? Patrick’s not so sure. He’s allowed to need the things he knows he can get. Anything other than that just hurts. “My second family,” he blurts out, and he doesn’t know why he’s saying this, but he is now. “They got money from the state to have me, right, they always do. But it wasn’t enough, and I used to hear them talking about how they were going to make it work. Buying me new clothes, and all the extra food. But you can’t just not grow, or not eat—”
“Of course you can’t,” Jonny says, quiet.
“And then, this family,” Patrick says, twisting his hands together, “wanting someone to do work around the house, that’s not that much. They weren’t asking for anything I didn’t owe them. They were giving me food and clothes and a place to live and it was fair to ask for something in return. It was just that,” he draws a shuddering breath, “it was just that I tried, really hard, I swear I did, and even then—”
“Patrick,” Jonny says, and he’s pulling Patrick into his arms, reaching across the gear shift to hold him. Patrick gets a face full of Jonny’s shirt, and he breathes in gulps of air.
“You didn’t do anything wrong,” Jonny murmurs in his ear. “You’re not—a burden. Anyone would be lucky to have you, and they shouldn’t need anything in return. You—just you—you’re so much more than enough.”
Patrick closes his eyes and holds tighter. Here in Jonny’s arms, he can almost believe it.